The Thunderbird Challenge Program is designed to challenge Oklahoma’s future leaders while in high school in academic excellence, physical fitness, life/job skills, health, hygiene, leadership and citizenship.

Pete Merwick, a 20-year military veteran and Recruiter Admissions Coordinator for the Thunderbird Challenge Program told Grove Rotary Wednesday that the program is Oklahoma’s premier high school leadership academy.

The program, which began in Pryor in 1993 and now boasts more than 41 programs across the country, is funded by the Department of Defense, specifically the National Guard.

Merwick said the Quasi-military boot-camp experience is transformative.

The 22-week resident program, which was once designed for at-risk juveniles, is now an all-volunteer program as of ten years ago. Students attend school Monday through Thursday at the campus.

“We have had kids come in and complete sometimes one, two, three and even four semesters of school that they needed to catch up,” he said.

While attending school, primarily through the EPIC program, cadets also learning critical life skills, vocational training and participate in community service.

“This is a life/career readiness program,” Merwick said. “We have a great relationship with Northeast Technology Center campus right there in Pryor.”

Students sign up to attend a number of 3-hour evening classes at the NTC.

Merwick said the students, who are referred to as cadets, undergo rigorous physical fitness training getting up at 5 a.m. every day, and some cadets are also in the Thunderbird Running team, participating in running events in the region and across the country.

“They also go to bed at 2100, (9 p.m), they have a mandated eight hours of sleep, which is National Guard policy” he said. “They actually get more sleep here than they get at home.”

Along with a minimum of 40 hours of community service, cadets are required to pass the United States Citizenship test in order to graduate, Merwick said.

“They’re going to be building their resume from day one,” Merwick said. “They are going to put all of their life skills and activities on one piece of paper.”

Merwick said representatives from Google, which has a large facility in Pryor, seek out cadets for future employment.

“We had one Google rep came out last January to do interviews and said ‘I would rather hire a Thunderbird graduate than any other graduate from high school. Why? Because they can get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and they’re not on drugs, and they say ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’,” he said.

Since parents aren’t allowed to visit during the program, they are encouraged to follow the Thunderbird Challenge on social media where they can see some of the activities their child is doing.

“The first two weeks are very hard, but after that a lot of these kids don’t want to leave,” he said. “It’s a very safe environment, very routine, very regimented.”

Merwick said the cadets come from all backgrounds and academic achievement levels.

“This is not a scared straight program, it’s not a rehab center,” Merwick said. “It is a leadership academy, it’s very professional.”

Merwick said after they graduate, 80 percent go back to their high school and become leaders.

“The other 20 percent get their GED, Workforce, go to Tech School, Military, or College,” he said.

“When they graduate, we’re not done with them,” Merwick said. “For 12 months we will call them, text them, find out if the goals they articulated while they’re there are being met, we track their progress.”

The program, which has graduated more than 3000 of Oklahoma’s finest, is open to ages 16-18, male or female who are physically and mentally capable. The applicant must be compliant. Students must be non-violent, no sexual offenders and have no adult felonies.

People wishing to learn more about the program can go to thunderbird.org where there is also a link for an application for the program.